Unlike many players taken after the first day of the draft, guys taken in the first round (particularly early) are expected to start immediately. Patrick Surtain II is no exception, but is that expectation realistic with some really good cornerbacks already on the roster?
To begin we will operate under the premise that three cornerbacks are starters. This is normal in the modern NFL as most team’s base defense involves two linebackers and five defensive backs to combat all of the passing from three WR sets.
The top three CBs in the injury-riddled CB room for the Broncos last season were Michael Ojemudia (852 snaps), Bryce Callahan (655) and A.J. Bouye (410). However on teams with established CBs who remain healthy all season it is fairly common to have two CBs who both have 1000+ defensive snaps and another with 600 or 700. The 2015 Broncos had Chris Harris Jr (1063), Aqib Talib (977) and Bradley Roby (623). That means that when we last won the Super Bowl our defense had three CBs on the field roughly 60% of the time.
Our cornerback group has essentially been rebuilt relative to 2020. Ojemudia should be fighting for scraps of playing time (if everyone stays healthy) because of the signings of former All-Pro, Kyle Fuller, and Pro Bowl snub, Ronald Darby, followed by the drafting of Surtain.
Patrick Surtain II, was not the first cornerback taken in the draft, but he is thought by many to be the best cornerback (and some say best defender) in the 2021 draft. This got me thinking about how often rookie CBs have been elite as rookies in the NFL. So I searched for CBs who have made the Pro Bowl in their rookie season. While the Pro Bowl may not be the best measure of “elite” it is at least a measure of “eliteness.”
Since the merger there have been nine rookies CBs who have made the Pro Bowl (so about one every five years, but it’s been happening much more frequently lately). Four rookies did it in the first forty years of the league and five have done it in the last eleven years; or four have, since Patrick Peterson made the Pro Bowl as a punt returner as a rookie and not as a CB. The four recent guys are Denzel Ward in 2018, Marshon Lattimore in 2017, Marcus Peters in 2015 and Devin McCourtey in 2010.
I should also note that of the nine (eight) guys who made the Pro Bowl as rookie CBs, three are now in the Hall of Fame: Charles Woodson, Ronnie Lott and Mike Haynes. Lott began his career as a cornerback before moving to safety.
That was the optimistic approach which is fairly safe IMO because of the talent, intelligence and training that Surtain has and the tutelage he will receive in Denver. He probably landed in the best fit for a first round pick of any of the first round defenders in terms of a balance of expectations, coaching and talent around him. Surtain is set up to thrive as a rookie in the Fangio/Donatell defense.
Of course there is a possibility that he may not even start a game in 2021 with three established veterans “in front of him” (although I would highly doubt this). Surtain is too talented to be kept off the starting roster for long and no cornerback drafted in the top 10 this century has started zero games as a rookie (if healthy). The last CB drafted in the top 20 who played in eight or more games but started zero was Jason Allen in 2006. He was taken 16th overall by the Dolphins and played in 16 games with zero starts. Allen, who was a bust, would only start 23 games in his seven year NFL career.
I am not even going to discuss interceptions as they are a terrible way to measure the performance of a CB. Even passes defended can be misleading because elite CBs may have very few throws targetted to the players that they are covering. I could envision Surtain having zero interceptions this year and still being an elite CB. Ironically, the Pro Bowl voters still rely heavily on interception totals.
When Denzel Ward made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2018 he had three picks (and started twelve of the thirteen games he played). Lattimore had five picks as a rookie when he made the Pro Bowl and Peters had eight; those eight led the league in 2015. McCourtey had seven.
With interception rates going down year over year, I would not expect too many picks from Surtain as a rookie particularly with six games against Patrick Mahomes, Derek Carr and Justin Herbert - all of whom are very good at avoiding picks. Those three QBs combined to throw 25 picks on 1700 attempts in 2020 or five fewer than Jameis Winston threw by himself on 626 attempts in 2019. Aaron Rodgers has thrown 32 regular season picks on 3112 attempts over the last six seasons. Rodgers will probably finish his career with the lowest interception rate in the history of the NFL although Mahomes could have that title after his career is over. As of right now Rodgers is the best, but Mahomes is right on his heels. Rodgers is at 1.35 percent currently and Mahomes is at 1.42 percent. For perspective John Elway finished his career at 5.48 percent and Brett Favre at 3.30 percent.
Turnovers in general are becoming less frequent in the NFL. In 1990 there was one turnover every thirty plays in the NFL. In 2020 that number was one turnover for almost every fifty plays. So don’t fret if we don’t see the secondary snagging lots of interceptions in 2021. Defenses, even elite ones, are getting fewer turnovers year over year. As a corollary, offenses are scoring more.
In 2020 roughly forty percent of all offensive drives resulted in a score. That was up from thirty percent in 2000. In 2020 the Packers scored on 49.7 percent of their drives to lead the league. The Broncos were tied with Cincinnati for 29th at 33.0 percent. The Jets clocked in at a league worst 26.3 percent.
What are your expectations for Patrick Surtain II as a rookie?
This poll is closed
Pro Bowl selection, 16 game starter, ~1000 snaps
16 game starter, but does not make the Pro Bowl
Starts only a few games but plays as CB3 and shows elite skills in ~600 snaps
Does not start at all because of the talent in front of him and only plays 300 or so snaps